Could the latest news of five more Chicago-area newsroom layoffs by tronc, the oddly named newspaper chain that owns the Union-Tribune, spell yet further staff reductions for the once-mighty San Diego daily?
The cutbacks in Illinois represent one-quarter of the 20 reporting jobs at tronc's Pioneer Press suburban newspaper group. Positions are to be eliminated through buyouts and layoffs, veteran Chicago media-watcher Robert Feder reported over the weekend.
"If a sufficient number of employees do not accept the company’s buyout offer by October 6, layoffs are expected to follow," according to Feder.
"In order to overcome industry challenges, we along with most publishers, are working to become more efficient across our newsrooms,” said a statement from tronc cited by Feder.
“We have had to make a difficult decision at the Pioneer Press where we will initiate a voluntary separation program, within the parameters of the previously negotiated collective bargain agreement, in an effort to streamline editorial functions. Tronc’s top priority continues to be delivering award-winning journalism to the communities we serve.”
Though leaders of the union representing the Pioneer Press reporters said they were shocked by the move, many tronc watchers are less surprised, pointing to January statements by tronc CEO Justin Dearborn during an investors' roadshow.
"Over all, print is attriting," Dearborn proclaimed. "We are going to attrit with the industry."
According to Merriam-Webster, attrition in the business context means "a reduction in numbers usually as a result of resignation, retirement, or death."
News of the layoffs came two weeks after tronc announced on September 4 it was buying the money-losing New York Daily News for a token one-dollar payment, along with assuming pension-fund liabilities.
"We can’t know for sure whether it’s related,” Rick Kambic, a Pioneer Press reporter and unit chair of the Chicago News Guild was quoted by Feder as saying.
“What we do know for sure is this company felt it could afford to purchase a major New York newspaper and absorb around $25 million in debt, and we also know for sure the same company a week later is saying it needs to eliminate 25 percent of an already underpaid, decimated, and woefully understaffed organization that has a rich history of covering the suburbs of Chicago.”
Also by suspicious coincidence, the newest Union-Tribune vacancy occurred with last week's surprise departure of business writer and columnist Dan McSwain, who denied he was being pushed out of his job, citing his own "mild cognitive decline" for his decision to leave journalism.
"I hasten to mention that my doctor sees no evidence of early-onset Alzheimer's, a definition that includes the 5 percent of people with the disease who, before age 65, show serious symptoms like forgetting a grandchild’s name or getting lost on a regular morning walk."
Still, as McSwain explained to his readers in his September 10 final column, "I am certain that I can no longer function as your business columnist at the high level to which I aspire. This insight made my decision to quit surprisingly easy. In important matters, I prefer early to late."
The 54-year-old journalist has been a mainstay of the ever-shrinking U-T’s news pages, authoring coverage of the downtown homeless crisis, the Chargers stadium controversy, and his past struggles with addiction.
"In 1988, my dad sold his company, and I left to start a competing firm with my brother," McSwain wrote in a lengthy "disclosure page" he posted online in April 2013 after becoming the paper's business columnist.
"Five years later, I sold my half to focus on consuming bourbon and other drugs. Soon becoming a full-blown alcoholic, I moved quickly from wealthy to broke and homeless. It took me about four years to get sober; it’s been nearly 16 years since my last drink, drug, car wreck or jail term."
Ironically, McSwain had roles as "managing editor, news editor, editorial page editor and a business reporter" for the now-defunct North County Times, according to his U-T website bio.
In late 2012, the Times was purchased by then–U-T-owner Douglas Manchester, who stripped it of its real estate and fired a third of its workers before subsuming the tattered remnants into the U-T, which he sold to tronc predecessor Tribune Publishing in May 2015.